Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Discovery Institute Responds to Wired Article

Recently Wired magazine published this article, by Evan Ratliff, about the attempts by ID proponents to get their thinly-veiled religious agenda into high school science classes. The article was notable for it's clearly skeptical view of ID, and also for Ratliff's journalistic integrity in not blindly accepting ID propaganda. For example, one of the highlights of the article were these three paragraphs:

Meyer hands me a recent issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews with an article by Carl Woese, an eminent microbiologist at the University of Illinois. In it, Woese decries the failure of reductionist biology - the tendency to look at systems as merely the sum of their parts - to keep up with the developments of molecular biology. Meyer says the conclusion of Woese's argument is that the Darwinian emperor has no clothes.

It's a page out of the antievolution playbook: using evolutionary biology's own literature against it, selectively quoting from the likes of Stephen Jay Gould to illustrate natural selection's downfalls. The institute marshals journal articles discussing evolution to provide policymakers with evidence of the raging controversy surrounding the issue.

Woese scoffs at Meyer's claim when I call to ask him about the paper. “To say that my criticism of Darwinists says that evolutionists have no clothes,” Woese says, “is like saying that Einstein is criticizing Newton, therefore Newtonian physics is wrong.” Debates about evolution's mechanisms, he continues, don't amount to challenges to the theory. And intelligent design “is not science. It makes no predictions and doesn't offer any explanation whatsoever, except for 'God did it.'”

For those not familiar with Woese's work, basically he has shown that lateral gene tranfer, in which genes from one organism are inserted directly into the genome of another, is a particularly important mechanism of evolution for microorganisms. This makes it effectively impossible to resolve genealogical relationships between various species of bacteria. Two species may have similar genes because they inherited them from a common ancestor, or they may be similar as the result of direct transfer.

Consequently, Woese will occasionally say something like “Biologists must move beyond the idea of common descent” and ID folks will twist this to mean that we should abandon the idea of evolution. In reality, Woese's work is far more damaging to ID folks, since gene transfer is yet another method by which genetic complexity can increase by natural causes.

Anyway, the Discovery Institute was not happy with the Wired article and have now posted this response. After a smug, snarky opening in which they accuse Wired of making forays into science fiction, they make a number of bullet points relating to “obvious fictions” included by Ratliff in the article. I will respond to them here:

Ratliff repeatedly conflates creationism and the theory of intelligent design. Yet intelligent design differs from creationism in both its content and methodology. Intelligent design is inference based on data from biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy not a deduction from religious authority. It provides an explanation for the complexity of life, not a theory about the age of the earth or the days of creation in the book of Genesis.

There is no such conflation in Ratliff's article. He is quite clear that ID proponents claim to base their work on scientific evidence, not revelation, and in several places points out ways that ID differs from creationism. For example, early in the article he writes:

And so, the theory goes, we must be products of an intelligent designer. Creationists call that creator God, but proponents of intelligent design studiously avoid the G-word - and never point to the Bible for answers. Instead, ID believers speak the language of science to argue that Darwinian evolution is crumbling.

Actually, though, it should be pointed out that creationists claim to base their conclusions entirely on scientific evidence as well. That was the whole point of “scientific creationism”. The criticisms of evolution made by ID proponents differ from those of creationists only in their level of sophistication.

Here's the next bullet point:

Ratliff claims falsely that Ohio public schools will now include intelligent design in high school biology lessons. Instead, Ohio biology students will be required to “critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” In practice this will mean knowing the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory.

No such claim is made in Ratliff's article. Instead, here is what Ratliff actually wrote:

Several months after the debate, the Ohio school board voted to change state science standards, mandating that biology teachers “critically analyze” evolutionary theory. This fall, teachers will adjust their lesson plans and begin doing just that. In some cases, that means introducing the basic tenets of intelligent design.

Exactly right. ID is nothing more than a handful of crticisms of current evolutionary theory coupled with the assertion that a higher intelligence (God) exists. In many Ohio school districts, the phrase “critically analyze” will be interpreted to mean “parrot ID's criticisms of evolution&rdquo. These criticisms are the basic tenets of ID.

Here's the next criticism:

Ratliff claims incorrectly that Ohio’s model lesson teaching students to critically analyze evolution is “based on ID literature.” Instead the scientific criticisms of Neo-Darwinism enumerated in the lesson are based on criticisms of the theory found in peer-reviewed biology journals. This can be verified by checking the references in the model lesson on the State of Ohio Department of Education website.

Typical ID sophistry. Listing a handful of references at the end of your lesson plan does not mean that the content of that lesson is based on what those references actually say. In this case, the content of the lesson plan is based on the interpretations (and massive distortions) of ID proponent Jonathan Wells as presented in his book Icons of Evolution. This was the piece of ID literature Ratliff has in mind in the quote above. Wells' pathological dishonesty has been amply documented elsewhere (see this article for example).

Discovery's next point is that Stephen Meyer is identified in the article as a professor in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Actually, he is a Professor in the Conceptual Foundations of Science. Point to Discovery! But if this is their fourth-best criticism of Ratliff's article, I'd say he did a very good job.

Their final criticism is:

Ratliff claims that design theorists have made no progress in their publishing program since the publication of Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box in 1996 and William Dembski’s The Design Inference in 1998. Yet design theorists have published numerous articles in peer-reviewed or peer-edited scientific books with publishers such as Michigan State University Press, Wessex Institute of Technology Press and Cambridge University Press.

Yawn. Once again, Ratliff makes no such assertion. Here's what he actually said:

For Discovery, the “thin end” of the wedge - according to a fundraising document leaked on the Web in 1999 - is the scientific work of Johnson, Behe, Dembski, and others. The next step involves “publicity and opinion-making.” The final goals: “a direct confrontation with the advocates of material science” and “possible legal assistance in response to integration of design theory into public school science curricula.”

Step one has made almost no headway with evolutionists - the near-universal majority of scientists with an opinion on the matter. But that, say Discovery's critics, is not the goal. “Ultimately, they have an evangelical Christian message that they want to push,” says Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State. “Intelligent design is the hook.”

It's a lot easier to skip straight to steps two and three, and sound scientific in a public forum, than to deal with the rigor of the scientific community. “It starts with education,” Johnson told me, referring to high school curricula. “That's where the public can have a voice. The universities and the scientific world do not recognize freedom of expression on this issue.” Meanwhile, like any champion of a heretical scientific idea, ID's supporters see themselves as renegades, storming the gates of orthodoxy. “We all have a deep sense of indignation,” says Meyer, “that the wool is being pulled over the public's eyes.”

So what about the books from Michigan State, Cambridge, and Wessex? The Michigan State anthology was edited by Stephen Meyer and John Angus Campbell, and was entitled Darwinism, Design, and Public Education. It was published as part of a series on Rhetoric and Public Affairs. The articles were not peer-reviewed for their scientific content. The Cambridge anthology was entitled Debating Design, edited by William Dembski and Michael Ruse. The point of this volume was to give ID folks a chance to make their case. The pro-ID articles in the volume were not put through a conventional scientific peer-review process. As for the Wessex volume, I'm afraid I don't know that one. Anyone have any idea what they're talking about here?

Having run out of alleged errors of fact, Discovery turns to errors of omission. I won't bother to address those here.

The reason Discovery finds it impossible to deal honestly with Ratliff's article is that they are used to journalists rolling over for them in the name of journalistic objectivity. Someone like Ratliff, who actually bothers to check out what he is told by partisan sources, is new to them.


At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a Wessex Institute Press, which has a series called "Design and Nature" here:

Some of the volumes apparently are a series of conference proceedings, though I have not looked at all the volumes. I see no ID content, though there are studies of the common properties of natural and designed objects following on the constraints of physics, and on biomimetics (designs of objects that borrow from biology), and so on.


At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, you write,

"As for the Wessex volume, I'm afraid I don't know that one. Anyone have any idea what they're talking about here?"

I think they're talking about this:

Genetic Analysis of Coordinate Flagellar and Type III Regulatory Circuits in Pathogenic Bacteria
By: Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer
Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece.

...which is apparently found in:

Brebbia, C. A. & Collins, M. (Eds.) (2004).Design & Nature II: Comparing design in nature with science & engineering. Southhampton: Wessex Institute Press.

The conference proceedings article is online at the DI website:

...and Meyer cites it in his open letter complaining about the Chronicle of Higher Education's coverage:

I have not seen the volume but I made some general comments on the kind of "peer-review" that typically goes into conference proceedings (commonly, not much), and then specifically analyzed the Minnich and Meyer article to see if it said anything novel about ID, and/or avoided basic mistakes. It didn't. See the bottom section of:

Deja vu again. Again.

Nick Matzke


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